The bill to more than double the size of the school voucher program was defeated on its first run in the Senate, but the big money (Walton Family Foundation and others) behind this bill haven’t given up bringing legislators over to pass the bill.
And so the opposition from education groups continues as well.
The Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta has joined with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families; the Arkansas Education Association; Arkansas Policy Panel, Arkansas Citizens First Congress; Disability Rights Arkansas; Education Law Center; Public Funds Public Schools; and the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund in a letter urging the legislature to continue to oppose voucher expansion by some 600 students, with a 25 percent annual growth rate built-in.
It cites a 2020 report by the legislature’s research arm itself as a reason not to expand vouchers. From the letter to legislative leaders:
As you know, the 2020 state-produced biennial report on the Succeed Voucher (“2020 Report”), authorized by Representative Cozart’s bipartisan legislation passed in 2019, reveals that Succeed Vouchers fail to effectively meet the needs of students with disabilities and students in foster care in Arkansas. The 2020 Report shows that the Succeed Voucher program also widens racial disparities between Arkansas’ public and private school systems, furthering inequities between the state’s white students and students of color.
Behind the data disclosed in the 2020 Report are the stories of many families of students with special needs who feel betrayed because the Succeed Voucher failed to meet its promise to provide their children with high-quality educational opportunities. Parents of children receiving Succeed Vouchers have reported that their children were taught by uncertified teachers, some of whom lacked a college degree and many of whom lacked formal experience and training to serve students with special needs.
One mother reported that her daughter, who received the Succeed Voucher for two years, made no academic progress during her time enrolled in the program. This mother felt that using a Succeed Voucher wasted two critical years of her child’s education. Another mother expressed similar sentiments, also noting that the Succeed Voucher program excludes transparency and accountability provisions that she and others could use to assess whether the participating private schools’ policies and practices are conducive to learning for the state’s highest-need students. She also reported that her= child’s performance noticeably improved after re-enrolling in the Little Rock School District. Many parents also reported that they did not understand or were not made immediately aware that their children were losing their Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) rights and their right to due
process by accepting a Succeed Voucher.
Many of the parents whose experiences are described above enrolled their children at the Hannah School in Little Rock using a Succeed Voucher. As the 2020 Report shows, as of the 2019-20 school year, the Hannah School enrolled the most Succeed Voucher recipients of any private school – 64. Any school that accepts voucher funding from a state-administered program must be fully accountable to the state;
however, the Hannah School’s participation illustrates that neither accountability to the State and its taxpayers nor compliance with basic accreditation standards are prerequisites for participating in the Succeed Voucher program.
The Hannah School is accredited, the letter said, but 25 percent of schools participating were not at the time the 2020 report was released. Yet those schools could get money despite the absence of an accrediting process or accountability and reporting standards that public schools must meet.
And there’s more, again from the state’s own report.
- Though vouchers are sold as a panacea for struggling students in failing schools:
- 78 percent of those served were white, compared with a 60 percent white enrollment in public schools.
- Over a third of the participants were from Little Rock, with many others from the suburbs. The program is, thus, an “illusion of choice” for people from places without private schools.
- The voucher schools didn’t administer tests to measure progress. But what data the state was able to collect was not encouraging.
- While 60 percent of public school students come from low-income families, only 30 percent of voucher students were eligible for subsidized lunches under poverty guidelines.
- Some 20 percent of voucher students left their private schools for reasons including involuntary dismissal, inability to pay tuition in excess of vouchers and lack of transportation.
Said the letter:
The evidence is clear: The Succeed Voucher program is inequitable, ineffective, and an inefficient use of hardworking Arkansans’ taxpayer dollars. It should be phased out immediately. The evidence on the State’s existing voucher program counsels strongly against any expansion of the Succeed Voucher, let alone the establishment of an additional voucher program, as House Bill 1371 would have done had it passed. We appreciate Representative Cozart’s recognition of this evidence, his vote against House Bill 1371, and his consistent opposition to the use of public funds for private schools.